Buffalo News article features BioXFEL Director Ed Lattman describing the “Apollo effect” caused by BioXFEL and the potential impact on increasing student participation in STEM areas locally.

 Increasing participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields requires convincing students that doing science is fun – instilling in them a sense of the excitement and satisfaction that comes from making a scientific discovery. Scientists associated with the BioXFEL project have recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) supplemental grant of $102,000 to support their efforts to do just that. The idea is to use the glamour of a spectacular new X-ray laser facility at Stanford University as a magnet to draw young students into STEM.

BioXFEL (Biology with X-ray Lasers) is an NSF Science and Technology Center that involves a consortium of eight research institutions. Two of these, the University at Buffalo (the lead institution) and the Hauptman-Woodward Institute, are located in Western New York. The BioXFEL Center was formed in 2013 to advance the use of this X-ray laser in the imaging of biomolecules such as proteins.

The “Apollo effect” describes the burst of enthusiasm for STEM engendered among young people by the Apollo space missions. Their drama evoked a picture of an exciting future in science. The X-ray laser facility at Stanford is over half a mile long, and creates incredibly short X-ray pulses, measured in millionths of a billionth of a second. It is a genuinely awe-inspiring place, and can stimulate a mini Apollo effect among students fortunate enough to visit it.

The new grant will allow a diverse group of seven undergraduate students from any college or university to work in a BioXFEL laboratory for 10 weeks next summer. The students will attend a series of lectures on X-ray lasers and complete a laboratory project that will involve travel to Stanford to use the X-ray laser.

X-rays are an invisible “color” of light lying past the blue/violet edge of the rainbow. In the technique of X-ray crystallography, patterns produced when an X-ray beam bounces off a crystal can lead to detailed 3-D pictures of molecules. Such pictures provide a basis for the rational design of drugs, and for an atomic understanding of life processes.

X-ray lasers represent an incredible advance for crystallography. An X-ray laser beam is tightly parallel, like that of red or green laser pointers. But the beam is actually a stream of incredibly short yet intense X-ray pulses that act as flashbulbs that allow scientists, for the first time, to freeze molecular motions and produce movies of them. It is now possible to see individual molecules at work.

The potential for X-ray lasers to generate scientific breakthroughs does give the field an almost Apollo-like appeal. Spending the summer working in the field is a wonderful way of inspiring talented students to pursue a career in science.

Eaton E. Lattman, Ph.D., is director of the BioXFEL Center and emeritus CEO of the Hauptman-Woodward Institute.

This article has been reprinted from the Buffalo News. View the original article here.